A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 60


Chapter 60

Jasmine Powder Is Substituted for

Rose-Nitric Powder

Rose Flavoured Juice Is Repaid

with Pachyma Cocos

Xiren asked Pinger what trouble there had been.

‘Oh, a lot of nonsense that no one could conceive of!’ was the reply. ‘I’ll tell you some other day. Right now I’m too busy, and things aren’t straightened out either.’

As she was speaking, in came a maid sent by Li Wan.

‘Is Sister Pinger here?’ she asked. ‘My mistress is waiting for you. ‘What’s keeping you?’

‘Coming, coming!’ responded Pinger, hurrying out.

Xiren and the others commented jokingly, ‘With her mistress ill she’s in such great demand, everyone’s trying to grab her.’

Once Pinger had gone, Baoyu suggested to Chunyan, ‘Why not take your mother over to Miss Baochai’s place to say a few kind words to Yinger, so that she doesn’t feel too wronged.’

Chunyan agreed to this, going out with her mother, and Baoyu called again to her through the window, ‘Mind you don’t mention it in front of Miss Baochai, or Yinger may get scolded instead!’

Mother He and her daughter assented and left, chatting as they walked along.

‘I kept telling you, ma, but you never believed me,’ said Chunyan. ‘Why land yourself in trouble like this?’

‘Go on, you little bitch,’ chuckled her mother. ‘As the proverb says: ‘We learn from experience.’ I understand now, so don’t keep on at me.

‘If you’d just know your place and mind your own business here, ma, in the long run you’d gain a whole lot by it,’ went on Chunyan. ‘Let me tell you something: Baoyu often says that he’s going to ask the mistress to send all of us working here ‘ whether inside or outside back to our own parents. Isn’t that fine?’

‘Did he really say that?’ her mother asked eagerly.

‘Why should anyone tell such a lie?’ Chunyan retorted. ‘Buddha be praised! Buddha be praised!’ cried her mother. When they reached Alpinia Park, Baochai, Daiyu and Aunt Xue were having a meal. As Yinger had gone to make tea, the two of them went straight to find her.

‘I was talking too wildly just now,’ said Mother He ingratiatingly. ‘Please don’t hold it against me, miss. I’ve come now specially to apolo­gize.’

Yinger, smiling, offered them seats and poured them some tea. But saying that they had business they took their leave and were starting back when Ruiguan hurried out after them.

‘Auntie! Sister!’ she called. ‘Wait a minute.’

Coming up to them she gave them a packet, explaining that this was some rose-nitric powder for Fangguan.

‘How small-minded of you, really!’ chuckled Chunyan.

‘Do you imagine she can’t get this in our place that you have to send her a packet?’

‘What she gets there is one thing,’ retorted Ruiguan, ‘but this is a present from me. Do take it back for her.’

Chunyan had to accept it then. When she and her mother got back, Jia Huan and Jia Cong had just called to see Baoyu.

‘I’ll go in by myself, ma,’ said Chunyan. ‘You’d better keep out.’ Her mother, now completely under her thumb, did not venture to op­pose her.

When Baoyu saw that Chunyan was back he nodded to her and she took the hint, holding her tongue. After standing there for a few minutes she turned and went out, signalling to Fangguan to join her, then quietly told her what Ruiguan had said and handed over the powder.

Baoyu, having nothing to say to Cong and Huan, asked Fangguan presently what she had in her hand; and readily showing it to him she explained that it was rose-nitric powder for a spring rash.

‘It was kind of her to think of it,’ he remarked.

Jia Huan hearing this craned his neck to have a look, and when he smelt how fragrant the powder was he stooped to pull a sheet of paper out of his boot.

‘Give me half of it. won’t you, good brother?’ he wheedled.

Baoyu felt obliged to comply, but Fangguan was unwilling to part with a gift from Ruiguan.

‘Don’t you touch this!’ she cried. ‘I’ll fetch you some from else­where.’

Baoyu smiled understandingly as he wrapped the powder up again.

‘Bring it quickly then,’ he said.

Fangguan took the packet and put it away, then went to her dressing-case to look for her own powder. When she opened the case, however, she found the box empty. ‘There was still some this morning. Where has it all gone?’ she wondered. The other maids when questioned did not know.

‘Why try to track it down just now?’ asked Sheyue. ‘Someone in this place must have run out of hers and taken it. Just give them some­thing else, it doesn’t matter what they won’t know the difference. Hurry up and get rid of those boys so that we can have our meal.’

So Fangguan wrapped up a packet of jasmine powder and took it to Jia Huan; but when he eagerly held out his hand for it she tossed it on to the kang, forcing him to pick it up himself. Having put it in his pocket he took his leave.

In the absence of Jia Zheng, Lady Wang and the rest, Jia Huan had been playing truant from school for several days on the pretext of illness. Now that he had this powder he went off in high spirits to find Caiyun, who happened just then to be chatting with Concubine Zhao. Beaming, he told the girl:

‘I’ve got something good here for you to powder your face with. You’ve often said that rose-nitric powder is better for skin trouble than that nitric concoction bought outside. Have a look and see if this is the right stuff.’

Caiyun opened the packet and promptly burst out laughing.

‘Who gave you this?’ she asked.

Jia Huan explained how he had acquired it.

‘They were fooling you because you’re such a bumpkin,’ she chuckled. ‘This isn’t rose-nitric powder, it’s jasmine powder.’

Jia Huan examined it, and saw that it was pinker than the powder he had been shown, but equally fragrant.

‘Well, it’s good stuff just the same,’ he retorted. ‘Keep it to powder your face. It’s better than anything you can get outside.’

So Caiyun accepted it.

‘How could she give you anything good?’ sneered Concubine Zhao at this point. ‘Who told you to go there begging? No wonder they made a fool of you. If I were you, I’d take it back and throw it in her face. Now’s the time, while some have gone to the funeral and others are ill in bed, to raise a rumpus and let no one have any peace. This way we can get our own back. Two months from now they won’t rake it up again. Even if they do, you can have an answer ready. Baoyu is your elder brother, so if you don’t dare tackle him, never mind; but are you afraid of those cats and dogs in his place too?’

Jia Huan hung his head.

‘Why stir up more trouble?’ put in Caiyun quickly. ‘Whatever hap­pens, we’d better put up with it.’

‘Don’t you barge in,’ retorted Concubine Zhao. ‘This has nothing to do with you. Better seize this chance, while we’ve got a good excuse, to bawl out those dirty bitches.’ Pointing at Jia Huan she spat out, ‘You spineless wretch, you deserve to be bullied by that scum! If I say a word against you or give you the wrong thing by mistake, you toss your head in a rage and throw a tantrum, your eyes popping out of your head; but now that these sluts make fun of you, you take it lying down. Do you expect anyone in this family to have any respect for you in future? You’re so useless, I blush for you.’

Jia Huan, though ashamed and annoyed, was afraid to do as she said. He brushed it aside.

‘You can talk, but you don’t dare go either,’ he muttered. ‘You just want me to go and have a row with them. If they report me to our school and I get a beating, of course you won’t feel the pain. Each time you’ve egged me on and trouble came of it so that I got beaten or cursed, you’ve always kept quiet. Now you’re egging me on again to quarrel with those servant-girls. Aren’t you afraid of Third Sister? If you have the guts to go, I’ll have more respect for you.

This touched his mother on the raw.

‘Why should I be afraid of a creature I spawned myself?’ she snapped. ‘If I were there’d be even more rows here.’

She grabbed the packet and dashed off towards the Garden. Caiyun, unable to stop her no matter how hard she tried, made herself scarce while Jia Huan slipped out of the ceremonial gate and went off to amuse himself elsewhere.

Concubine Zhao stormed straight into the Garden where she ran into Mother Xia, Ouguan’s foster-mother, who seeing the rage she was in asked where she was going.

‘Just look at this household!’ fumed the concubine. ‘Even those little singsong girls brought in to put on shows every other day treat some people better than others, taking advantage of those who have less weight. If it had been anyone else I wouldn’t have minded, but how can I let that little whore get the upper hand of us?’

This struck a chord in Mother Xia’s heart. She hastily asked what had happened, and was told how Fangguan had made a fool of Jia Huan by giving him jasmine powder instead of rose-nitric powder.

‘Is that all, madam?’ exclaimed Mother Xia. ‘Have you only just woken up to them? Why, that’s nothing! Yesterday they were even burning paper money here on the sly, and Baoyu stood up for them. But if other people bring something in they say it’s forbidden, unclean or taboo. So isn’t burning paper money taboo here? Just think, apart from the mistress, there’s nobody higher than you in this house; only you won’t use your authority, so nobody’s afraid of you.

‘Now what I suggest is this. As those young whores are low-class girls it won’t matter offending them. So seize hold of these two things they’ve done to teach them a lesson, and I’ll back you up as a witness. This way you can assert your authority, and other issues will be easier to handle. The mistresses and the young ladies can hardly side with those singsong girls against you.’

This made Concubine Zhao feel in a stronger position.

‘I didn’t know about that business of burning paper. Tell me the de­tails,’ she said.

Mother Xia accordingly told her all that had happened. ‘Just go ahead and trounce them,’ she concluded. ‘If there’s a row, we’ll back you up.,’

Emboldened by this, Concubine Zhao made her way confidently to Happy Red Court. It so happened that Baoyu had gone to call on Daiyu, having heard that she was in, and Fangguan was having a meal with Xiren and the others. When the concubine came in they all stood up to greet her and offer her a seat, after which they asked her business. Instead of answering, she stepped forward and threw the powder in Fangguan’s face.

‘You trollop!’ she swore, pointing a finger at her. ‘We bought you with our money to train as an actress. You’re nothing but a painted whore. Even the lowest slave in our house ranks higher than you, yet you make up to some people and look down on others. When Baoyu wants to give someone a present you stop him, as if it were your property. And you fob this stuff off on my son, imagining he doesn’t know the difference. They’re both sons of the house, young masters. Who are you to treat him like dirt?’

This was more than Fangguan could take.

‘There was no rose powder left,’ she sobbed. ‘That’s why I gave him this. If I’d told him there wasn’t any more, he most likely wouldn’t have believed me. Isn’t this good powder too?

‘Even if I did train as an actress, I never performed outside. I’m only a girl; what do I know about painted whores? You’ve no call to swear at me, madam. You didn’t buy me. We’re all birds of a feather ‘ all slaves here. Why go for me?’

Xiren pulled her away, remonstrating, ‘Don’t talk such nonsense!’

The concubine was so angry that she darted forward and slapped Fangguan on both cheeks. Xiren hastily intervened.

‘She’s just a child with no sense, madam. Let her be! We’ll give her a good talking to presently.’

After being slapped, however, Fangguan would not keep quiet. She flew into a tantrum, wailing and screaming:

‘Who are you to beat me? Take a look at yourself in the mirror first. I’d sooner die than let a hag like you beat me!’

She threw herself at Concubine Zhao and dared her to slap her again. As the others tried to quiet her and pull her away, Qingwen gently tugged at Xiren’s sleeve.

‘Leave them alone,’ she whispered. ‘Let them make a row and see what comes of it. Everything’s at sixes and sevens now, with so many people trying to have the whip hand, taking it in turn to throw their weight about. This sort of thing can’t go on.’

The attendants outside who had come with Concubine Zhao were each and all delighted to hear this row.

‘High time too!’ they crowed. ‘Buddha be praised!’

As for the old women who had a grudge against the actresses, they all gloated too at the sight of Fangguan being beaten.

Meanwhile Ouguan and Ruiguan were amusing themselves together. When Kuiguan, the ‘warrior’ actress assigned to Xiangyun, and Douguan assigned to Baoqin heard of this fracas, they rushed to find the two of them.

‘Fangguan’s being bullied!’ they cried. ‘How can we put up with that? Let’s all go and have a first-class row to get our own back!’

Being all of them so childish, their one thought was to avenge their friend without worrying about the consequences, and so they ran together to Happy Red Court. First Douguan butted Concubine Zhao with her head, very nearly knocking her down. The other three swarmed round as well, weeping and wailing, tearing at her and butting her, so that she was surrounded on all sides. Qingwen and the other maids, laughing, only made a show of trying to intervene. As for Xiren, she was frantic. But as she pulled one away another rushed forward.

‘Are you out of your minds?’ she demanded. ‘If you have some complaint, say so quietly. How can you carry on in this crazy way?’

Concubine Zhao was helpless. All she could do was pour out a flood of abuse. Ruiguan and Ouguan, one on each side of her, had pinioned both her arms while Kuiguan and Douguan, one in front and one behind, were butting her with their heads.

‘You’ll have to kill all four of us!’ they swore.

Fangguan, stretched out on the ground, was crying as if she were about to die.

During this burly-burly, Qingwen had sent Chunyan to report it to Tanchun. So now Madam You, Li Wan and Tanchun came over with Pinger and some older serving-women. They ordered the four actresses to lay off, and asked what the trouble was. Concubine Zhao, nearly bursting with rage, her eyes, bulging, broke into an incoherent diatribe. Madam You and Li Wan paid no attention to her, simply ordering the four girls to keep quiet. Tanchun sighed.

‘What a fuss about nothing!’ she said. ‘You lose your temper, madam, too easily. I was just wanting to consult you about something, and was surprised when the maids told me they couldn’t find you. So you were here all the time in one of your rages. Please come along with me.’

Madam You and Li Wan chimed in with a smile, ‘Please come to the hall, and we can talk things over.

Concubine Zhao had no choice but to go with the three of them, still muttering and maundering.

‘Those girls are playthings,’ said Tanchun. ‘If we like them we can chat and joke with them; if we don’t we can ignore them. If they misbe­have it’s like being scratched by a cat or a puppy, and we should over­look it whenever possible. If it’s something inexcusable, we should just tell the stewards’ wives to punish them. Why lower ourselves to raise a hullabaloo? This is so undignified!

‘Look at Concubine Zhou. Why is it that no one takes advantage of her, and she doesn’t go round hounding other people either? My advice to you, madam, is to go back to your rooms and get your temper under control. Don’t listen to malicious trouble-makers, or you’ll just make yourself a laughing-stock by doing other people’s dirty work for nothing. Even if you’re bursting with anger, put up with it for a few days. When the mistress comes back she’ll straighten everything out.’

Concubine Zhao had nothing to say in reply to this lecture and had to go home. Then Tanchun turned indignantly to Li Wan and Madam You.

‘She’s so old, yet the way she carries on makes it impossible for anyone to respect her. Was it worth rampaging in such an undignified fashion over such a trifle? She has no sense of dignity and is too gullible. She never uses her head. Those shameless slaves must have egged her on again to do this, using her ‘ because she’s a fool ‘ to get their own back.’

The more she thought about it, the angrier she felt. So she ordered the serving-women to find out who was at the bottom of this business. They had to agree, but once outside they smiled at each other and said:

‘This is like looking for a needle in the ocean!’

They summoned Concubine Zhao’s maids and all those in the Garden for questioning, but each denied any knowledge of how this had started. At a loss, they had to report to Tanchun their failure to find the culprit, but promised to make further investigations, to inform her of any irrespon­sible talk, and to have the offender punished. Tanchun was gradually calming down when Aiguan slipped in to see her.

‘It’s Mother Xia who’s got her knife into us all and is always stirring up trouble,’ she confided. ‘The other day, she accused Ouguan of burn­ing sacrificial paper; but luckily Baoyu said he’d asked her to do it, and that silenced the old creature. Today, when I brought you your handker­chief, I noticed her gabbing away with Concubine Zhao. She only went away when she saw me coming.’

Although this sounded suspicious to Tanchun, she knew that Aiguan and the other girls belonged to one set and were very mischievous too; so after hearing her out, she was unwilling to use this as proof.

Now Mother Xia’s grand-daughter Chanjie also served in Tanchun’s apartments and often bought things or ran errands for the maids there, all of whom liked her. After her meal that day, Tanchun went to the hail to attend to some business; and Cuimo, left at home in charge, told Chanjie to go and send a page to buy some cakes.

‘I’ve just swept a whole big courtyard and my legs and back are aching,’ objected Chanjie. ‘Can’t you get someone else to go?’

‘Who else is there?’ countered Cuimo. ‘Go while it’s still early. And let me give you a word of advice: on your way to the back gate, tell your grandma to be on her guard.’

Then she explained how Aiguan had been telling tales about Mother Xia.

Taking the money from her Chanjie snorted, ‘So that little bitch wants to get us into trouble too! Wait till I tell my grandma this.’

With that she went off to the back gate. She found all the kitchen-maids, Mother Xia among them, sitting chatting on the steps there, as they were free for a while. She asked one of the women to go and buy the cakes. Then, fulminating, she passed on to her grandmother what she had just been told. Mother Xia, both angry and frightened, wanted to go and challenge Aiguan and to complain to Tanchun. Chanjie quickly stopped her.

‘What would you say if you went, grandma?’ she asked. ‘How did you get to know about it? Carping and complaining would only cause more trouble. I’m just telling you so that you’ll be on your guard. Don’t go rushing off in such a hurry.’

As she was speaking, along came Fangguan. Leaning on the gate she called pleasantly to Mrs. Liu in the kitchen:

‘Mrs. Liu, Master Bao says he’d like a cool, vinegary vegetable dish for supper; but don’t put in sesame oil ‘ that would make it greasy.’

‘All right,’ answered Mrs. Liu. ‘How come you were sent on this errand today? If you don’t think our place too dirty, come in and chat for a bit.’

Fangguan had just entered the kitchen when a woman came along carrying a plate of cakes.

‘Whose hot cakes are these?’ asked the girl jokingly. ‘Let me try one.’

Chanjie promptly took the plate.

‘These were bought for other people,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t care for this stuff.’

Mrs. Liu seeing this quickly put in, ‘If you like such things, miss, I’ve some here freshly bought for my daughter. She hasn’t eaten any yet so they’re still here, clean and untouched.’ She brought out another plate for Fangguan, adding, ‘Wait, I’ll brew you some good tea.’

While she went in to poke up the fire and make tea, Fangguan took a cake and thrust it under Chanjie’s nose.

‘Who wants your cake? Isn’t this cake too?’ she demanded. ‘I was only joking, but I wouldn’t eat yours even if you kowtowed to me.’ She crumbled the cake into pieces then and tossed these to the sparrows, calling out, ‘You mustn’t feel hurt, Mrs. Liu. I’ll buy you another two catties presently.’

Chanjie was first speechless with anger. Then she snorted:

‘If the thunder god has eyes, why doesn’t he strike such wicked people dead? She’s deliberately needling me! Of course, I can’t com­pare with the likes of you who have people sending you presents, offer­ing to be your slaves and flattering you, in the hope that, if need be, you’ll put in a good word for them.’

The older women intervened, ‘Enough of that, you two. Why bicker every time you meet?’

A few of the more quick-witted, afraid this argument would lead to further trouble, quietly slipped away. Chanjie, however, dared not say any more. Grumbling to herself she went off.

When Mrs. Liu saw there was nobody about, she came out of the kitchen and asked Fangguan, ‘Did you mention that matter I spoke of the other day?’

‘Yes, I did,’ was the answer. ‘And I’ll bring it up again in a couple of days. But that old hag Zhao would choose this time for another row with me. Did sister take that rose flavoured juice I brought the other day? Is she any better?’

‘Oh, yes, she drank it all and just loved it, but she doesn’t like to ask you for more.

‘That’s nothing. I’ll get her some more.

The fact was that Mrs. Liu had a daughter just turned sixteen. Al­though the daughter of a cook, she was just as good-looking as Pinger, Xiren, Yuanyang or Zijuan. As she was the fifth child they called her Wuer; but being delicate, she had never been given a job. Recently Mrs. Liu had noticed that Baoyu had many attendants, whose work was light; and she had heard that he meant to let all the girls in his service return to their own homes in future. She wanted to send Wuer there as a maid but had no one to recommend her. It so happened that she had worked in Pear Fragrance Court and been more assiduous than their foster-moth­ers in waiting on Fangguan and the other actresses, with the result that they were good to her too. So now she had mentioned this request to Fangguan, asking her to pass it on to Baoyu. And he had agreed. Only, having been unwell recently and in view of all the troubles in the household, he had not yet referred the matter higher up. Enough, however, of this.

Fangguan returned now to Happy Red Court and broached the sub­ject again to Baoyu. He had been away when Concubine Zhao made such a scene, and found himself in a difficult position, not knowing whether to intervene or not. After the uproar died down and he heard that Tanchun had persuaded her to leave, he returned from Alpinia Park to comfort Fangguan, and at last everybody had calmed down again.

Now Fangguan came back and told him that she wanted some more rose flavoured juice for Liu Wuer.

He answered readily enough, ‘There’s plenty. I seldom drink it. You can take her the whole lot.’

He told Xiren to fetch it. And seeing that there was not much left, he gave the whole bottle to Fangguan who took it away.

Mrs. Liu had just taken her daughter into the Garden to amuse her. After strolling for a while in an out-of-the-way corner, they went back to the kitchen to rest and have some tea. Now Fangguan came in with a small glass bottle about five inches high. The light falling on it showed that it was almost half full of some red juice, which they assumed to be some of the Western port which Baoyu drank.

‘Sit down, while we fetch the pewter heater to warm it in a jiffy with hot water,’ they said.

‘This is all there is left, so he’s given it you with the bottle,’ Fangguan explained.

Wuer realized then that it was the juice and accepted it with profuse thanks.

Asked if she was better she said, ‘I do feel a bit more energetic today; that’s why I came here for a stroll. There’s not much of interest at the back, though, only some big rocks and big trees and the back walls of the buildings. I haven’t seen any of the real beauty spots yet.’

‘Why didn’t you go to the front?’ asked Fangguan.

‘I wouldn’t let her,’ said Mrs. Liu. ‘The young ladies don’t know her. If someone who has it in for us were to see her, that would lead to another row. If in future, with your help, she gets a job, she’ll have so many chances to stroll around she may even get tired of the place.’

‘Don’t worry,’ replied Fangguan. ‘You can count on me.

‘Aiya, miss!’ exclaimed Mrs. Liu. ‘We’re of no account, not like you.

With that she served tea. But as it was not to Fangguan’s taste, after just one sip she rose to take her leave.

‘I have my hands full here,’ said Mrs. Liu. ‘Wuer will see you off.’

So Wuer went out with Fangguan, and seeing there was nobody about she tugged at her sleeve.

‘Did you really put in a word for me?’ she asked.

Fangguan laughed.

‘Why should I fool you? I’ve heard there are definitely two vacan­cies in our compound. One is Hongyu’s place: Madam Lian took her away but hasn’t yet sent anyone to replace her. The other is Zhuier’s, which is still vacant too. So merely taking you on wouldn’t count as too many. It’s just that Pinger keeps telling Xiren that any new requests for people or money shouldn’t be raised yet awhile if possible, because Miss Tanchun’s looking for someone to make an example of. Even in her own quarters she’s turned down two or three requests. Right now she’s on the look-out for something in our place to make an issue of; so why should we jump into her trap? And if we were turned down now, it would be hard to get the decision changed later. Better wait for things to cool down. When the old lady and the mistress are free, if we approach them first, no matter how big a favour we ask they’re bound to agree to it.’

‘Even so, I’m feeling too impatient to wait,’ said Wuer. ‘If I were to be chosen now, in the first place my mother’ d be able to hold up her head and feel she hadn’t brought me up for nothing; in the second, my monthly allowance would make things easier for our family; in the third, I’d feel happier myself and my health might well improve. Even if I still had to see doctors and buy medicine, I needn’t spend the family’s money on it.’

‘I understand,’ said Fangguan. ‘Just don’t worry.

Then the two of them went their different ways.

Wuer, back home, told her mother how very grateful she was to Fangguan.

‘I never thought we’d get all that juice,’ said Mrs. Liu. ‘Though this is expensive stuff, if you take too much it will increase the hot humours,

so why not give some away? That would make a very handsome gift.’

‘Give it to whom?’

‘To your cousin. He’s been having a fever and was wanting some­thing like this. I’ll take him half a cup.’

Wuer remained silent while her mother poured out half a cup and put the bottle with what was left in the cupboard. Then she said with a faint smile:

‘If I were you, I wouldn’t send it. If people asked where it came from there’d be more trouble.’

‘Why should we be afraid of that? After all our hard work, if our masters give us something it’s only right. We didn’t steal this, did we?’

So ignoring her daughter’s advice, she went straight off to the house of her elder brother outside, where her nephew was lying in bed. When they saw what she had brought, her brother, sister-in-law and nephew were all delighted. Cold water was drawn from the well to mix with the tonic, and the invalid drinking a bowl of it found it extremely refreshing. What was left in the cup was covered with a piece of paper and put on the table.

Now it happened that a few of the Jia family pages who were friendly with the young patient called to see how he was. Among them was Qian Huai, a nephew of Concubine Zhao, both of whose parents worked in the counting-house, and whose own job was escorting Jia Huan to school. No wife had yet been found for him and as he had taken a fancy to pretty Wuer he told his parents he would like to marry her. Time and again they had sent a go-between to propose the match; and as they were in easy circumstances and fairly well connected, Liu and his wife were quite willing, but they could not get Wuer’s consent. Though she did not say so outright, her attitude was so clear that her parents could not accept the offer for her. Recently, moreover, since they hoped she would get a job in the Garden they had let the matter drop, assuming that after a few years when she was released from service she would choose someone else outside. And the Qian family, in view of this situation, had given up the idea too. Only Qian Huai, angry and mortified by his failure, had resolved that he must have his way and get Wuer as his wife. He had come with the others today to see his friend, never expecting to find Mrs. Liu there too.

When Mrs. Liu saw all these new arrivals, with Qian Huai among them, she rose on the pretext of business to take her leave.

‘Have some tea first,’ her brother and sister-in-law urged her. ‘It was very good of you to think of your nephew.’

‘It’ll soon be time to serve dinner in the Garden. I’ll come to see him again when I’m free,’ she answered.

Then her sister-in-law took a packet from a drawer and saw her out. Having reached the corner of the wall, she gave the packet to Mrs. Liu.

‘Yesterday your brother was on duty at the gate.’ she said. ‘For five days before that everything was so quiet that he didn’t get any tips; only yesterday an official from Guangdong called and presented two small baskets of pachyma cocos for the masters, and another basket for the men at the gate. This is your brother’s share. Down south there they have so many ancient firs, they just extract the essence of the fungus on the roots and mix it with some kind of medicine to make this handsome snowy white pachyma cocos powder. They say if you mix it with human milk and drink a cup first thing every day, it’s the best tonic you could have. If you haven’t human milk, cow’s milk is next best; or failing that even boiling water will do. We thought it would be just the thing for your daughter, and I sent a maid this morning to take it to you; but she said your door was locked and you’d taken Wuer with you into the Garden. I’d been meaning to call to see how she was and take it her myself. But knowing that with the mistresses away there’s a strict watch every­where, I thought as I’d no special business I’d better not go. Besides, I’ve heard that the last two days you’ve had a lot of upsets in the Gar­den; and I didn’t want to get mixed up in anything. So I’m very glad you came. You can take this back now yourself.’

Mrs. Liu thanked her, took her leave and went back. As she approached the side gate, a boy called out to her:

‘Where have you been, auntie? They’ve been asking for you several times inside. Three or four of us have been looking for you everywhere

‘ the others aren’t back yet. But this isn’t the way to your house. This seems rather suspicious.’

‘You monkey!’ chuckled Mrs. Liu.

To know what followed, read the next chapter.

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